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October 08, 2013 11:38 AM Obama’s Impeachment Would Probably Benefit Obama

By Keith Humphreys

In a normal political environment, it would be crazy and irresponsible to speculate about the possibility of Presidential impeachment. But in the current environment, it would be insouciant not to.

Potential debt default now looms as an even larger threat to the nation than the federal government shutdown. The Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives seem willing to force the country over this financial cliff. If they succeed, President Obama will have to choose between an international financial meltdown and a stretching of the bounds of historically permissible executive action.

Kevin Drum’s prediction is that Obama will opt for the latter:

But if the debt ceiling showdown lasts more than a couple of weeks, it’s likely that President Obama will simply order the Treasury to start auctioning bonds regardless. Maybe under the authority of the 14th Amendment, maybe under his authority as commander-in-chief. Maybe he’ll declare a state of emergency of some kind. Who knows? But eventually this is how things will work out, with Obama acting because he has to, and because he knows that courts will be loathe to intervene in a political dispute between the executive and legislative branches.

If Drum is correct and Obama takes this step, the counter move that seems most likely for the Tea Party Republicans is to impeach the President on the charge of violating the Constitution. Whether that charge holds any water legally or not, an impeachment by the House would be good for grassroots fundraising and for validating the Tea Party’s conviction that Obama is not a legitimate leader of the nation.

So, what would happen if our political system continued to unravel in this fashion? I think President Obama would be unharmed and might even come out ahead.

One of the important lessons of social psychology research concerns how observers make attributions about allegations of unfair treatment. If the lone woman on the corporate board complains of sexism, the men on the board as well as most observers (e.g., jurors in a harassment lawsuit) will be prone to explain it in terms of her personal characteristics, e.g., “That’s Linda, always complaining about something!”. The same attributional process often occurs when a single person of color complains that an organization is racially discriminatory.

However, when there are multiple people in the persecuted group, individual-level attributions become harder for observers to sustain: It can’t just be Linda’s personality because there’s more than one woman making the same complaint. Studies of jury decision making show that even the addition of one person to the persecuted group can shift jurors’ attention to the persecutors. When Linda’s complaint is echoed by Estelle, it becomes more believable that the men on the board really are out to harm women as a group.

As virtually no one remembers Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton stood alone in the dock in the public’s mind when he was impeached. That would have made it easy for his accusers to make his impeachment about him even if he hadn’t engaged in sketchy behavior.

But if the Tea Partiers impeach President Obama, it will be hard to persuade anyone not suffering from epistemic closure that two Democratic Presidents in a row just happened to deserve impeachment. The public’s attention and attributions would shift to the radicals in the Republican ranks: Why have these people impeached every Democratic President elected in the last 20 years?

Even if they didn’t have that psychological phenomenon in their favor, the Democrats would have two huge advantages in convincing the public that an Obama impeachment case was really about the Tea Party rather than the President: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. That’s as politically talented a pair as exists in the U.S. today, and it’s hard to think of anyone in the House of Representatives who could take them on and successfully frame an impeachment debate in the Tea Party’s preferred fashion.

Presidential impeachment would thus, like everything else the Tea Party is currently doing, be popular in their echo chamber but help convince the rest of the country that they are a dangerous and irresponsible force in U.S. politics. It’s not therefore something that Obama should fear. Indeed, he might even welcome it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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